Monday, November 2, 2020

Know Your Brain

Modern science has revealed some extremely valuable, albeit somewhat upsetting, truths about the human brain. Many, many experiments have conclusively proved that our brains work far less rationally than we think they do.

For example, a famous experiment showed that, under the right circumstances, someone can dress up in a gorilla costume, walk right into your field of vision, jump up and down and beat their chest, and you won't even see them. All it takes is the right kind of mental distraction. (This has important ramifications; it means that nobody can ever be certain that they wouldn't forget their baby in the car, and it is incumbent on all young parents to implement some sort of automated checking system.)

It's also been repeatedly proven that you can be 100% certain that you saw something which you couldn't possibly have seen. Millions of people are certain that they saw Tom Cruise jump up and down on Oprah's couch, declaring his love for Katie Holmes. But it never happened. Similarly, in a survey of people's responses as to where they were when they heard about 9/11, it turned out that many people completely (but with certainty) misremembered.

There are many other ways in which our minds do not work as well as we believe them to. Several have been discussed in two fascinating books, The Invisible Gorilla and Predictably Irrational. One of the most pernicious of these inbuilt human mental flaws is Confirmation Bias. This refers to how we search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our preexisting bias. 

In one experiment at Stanford, students were divided into two groups according to whether they believed that capital punishment does or does not discourage crime. Each group was given two sets of scientific papers, one set of which brought evidence that capital punishment does discourage crime, and one set of which brought evidence that it doesn't have such an effect. (Unbeknownst to the students, both sets of papers were fabricated for the purpose of the experiment, and were equal in the strength of the "evidence" that they offered.) When questioned, the students who were originally in favor of capital punishment being effective found the papers to that effect to be much more convincing, and were even strengthened in their belief. Whereas the students who were originally of the view that capital punishment does not help, found the papers to that effect much more convincing, and were strengthened in their belief.

In the modern era of mass media and social media, we are bombarded with thousands of reports and articles and perspectives, and we choose which ones we rate as convincing. We might think that we are being objective, but it is very likely that we are simply succumbing to Confirmation Bias. We search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our preexisting bias.

Of course, not everyone is equally subject to Confirmation Bias. While we are all vulnerable to a certain degree, there are those who are less affected, and those who are more affected. How can you tell if you are particularly affected? I think that there is pretty straightforward way to know, at least with regard to elections.

Elections are (frequently) binary choices between two people. However, these binary choices are between two people with a large number of associated people, who differ in a thousand ways, with a million different ramifications. And many of these ramifications can have long-term effects which cannot be predicted with any certainty, and may even have conflicting effects. To be sure, it is possible that one of these choices is overall vastly superior to the other. But with such a staggering array of factors, what are the odds that every single one of them fits neatly into the same binary column of what is good and bad?

So if you believe that every single article, every report, every argument, in favor of your preferred candidate is convincing, and every single article, report and argument in favor of the other guy is not at all convincing; if you believe that there is every reason to vote for your guy and not a single reason to vote for the other guy; if you believe that anyone who votes for the other guy is absolutely, irredeemably stupid or evil - then it is overwhelmingly likely that you suffer from severe Confirmation Bias.

(And there may turn out to be some further evidence to convince you. If you suffer from severe Confirmation Bias, you probably also believe that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of your candidate winning by a substantial majority. In the eventuality that your candidate fails to do so, you will have clear evidence that you indeed suffer from Confirmation Bias. And you can extrapolate from that that all your deep certainty that the Other Guy is absolutely utterly terrible, is probably likewise not so well-founded.)

It's also helpful to realize that other people suffer from confirmation bias, too; and therefore the reason why they are voting in a way that seems entirely incomprehensible to you is not because they are absolutely evil or utterly stupid, but rather because they had a certain inclination in a certain direction regarding certain aspects of person or policy difference, and interpreted everything else in light of that.

We are all human, and we are thus all flawed. But at least we have the capacity to learn about our flaws, and to be aware of them. That is the first step to compensating for them.

62 comments:

  1. All very nice, but Cruise DID jump on the couch, but not up and down. He was rolling and jumping around like a lunatic throughout the interview so that slight detail change is hardly impressive.
    See here at 1:53
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQgXEkL3NV4&ab_channel=celeburbia

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    1. The article he linked explains that this video is selective edited. It's a long article, but the alternative is finding the full length interview.

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    2. He DIDN'T actually jump onto th couch? The movement is so smooth that must have been some really amazing editing

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    3. Yep, he was acting like a wacko throughout the entire interview. Maybe the LA Weekly article was written by his agent or something.

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    4. He jumped on the couch. I've seen it. Look at it. There's no denying it.

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    5. He jumped on the couch twice and was acting crazy, and Oprah commented that he was acting weird.

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  2. Awesome. Thank you. I think I know what books I'm getting next on audible...

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  3. Great essay. Humans use logic in hindsight. They do something and then apply logic to it. They think with emotion and then use logic, but if logic does not for your beliefs you just dispel it which is why human beings learn through stories. It’s why they love stories so much. People love stories. That how people learned for thousands of years. People want to hear what their preconceived confirmation bias already confirms.

    Thus, People only use logic when it agrees with their beliefs and reject logic when it disagrees because humans are not logical creatures. They may think they are but they're aren't. They only use logic to aid themselves.

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  4. > Millions of people are certain that they saw Tom Cruise jump up and down on Oprah's couch, declaring his love for Katie Holmes. But it never happened.

    Sorry, but Cruise DEFINITELY did jump on Oprah's couch. You can see it with your own eyes right here. Relevant part starts at 1:52. Know your brain but also don't believe everything you read on the internet.

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    1. Yeah, the article is very clever. They're like, "Well, he stood up on the couch but didn't jump up and down." That's semantics, and very limiting the definition to get their way.

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    2. Looks like RNS wanted to write an article, and found an article about Tom Cruise confirming his opinions...

      Your point is a good one. Often the smug people dismissing the impressions/opinions of millions of people as "mistaken" are themselves wrong. And sometimes its hard or impossible to know who is right (although in the unfortunate example RNS chose, it isn't.) All of which means that "confirmation bias", like many other Wikipedia-inspired concepts, is essentially meaningless.

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    3. I don't know how you could watch the video and think that the article in this post had any merit.

      He jumped on the couch twice and was acting crazy, and Oprah commented that he was acting weird.

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  5. Which why in general if the consensus of experts inform you of something you need to consider their opinion superior to your own.ACJA

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    1. This is true in general, however exceptions are very, very numerous. I consider Catholic clergy to be the experts on Catholicism, Imams to be the experts on Islam, astrologers to be the experts on astrology. Yet I don't consider their opinion that Catholicism is true, that Islam is true, that astrology is true, superior to my own.

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    2. Agreed. But there we have semantics (at least): Catholic clergy may be experts in Catholicism but not experts on God.

      Being more serious, given what ACJA *might* be referring to, or at least being more relevant: we believe that we already know the truth about God, and therefore Christian, Muslim, and atheist experts are irrelevant. The problem arises when there is something neutral yet we believe that we know the truth and therefore refuse to listen to experts. See: everything about the pandemic.

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    3. Yosef I agree about neutral, but I think there is more to it. When people say they trust the "experts", in my opinion, it's not usually because they are experts per se. Example: When I trust my child's pediatrician to vaccinate, it's not because I am so impressed by her credentials. It's not even because I can understand the scientific papers showing vaccines are safe. It's because in my own experience, so many people I know have gotten their children vaccinated under physician guidance with no ill effect. So I am essentially relying on my intuition, not anybody's expertise.

      Suppose for example, the consensus of doctors determined that it would be beneficial for all babies to get their skull flattened a little bit using the newly patented Skull Crusher. And even though it wasn't tested on any humans yet, there are already Mountains of Scientific Evidence that it's safe and beneficial. Would I let my baby be the first to try it? There too, I would rely on my intuition.

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    4. @ACJA people use logic in hindsight. They act with emotion and then apply logic to it, and if logic does not fit your beliefs you just dispel it.

      People use logic when it agrees with their beliefs but people are not themselves logical creatures. This does not mean to surrender your  opinion to the "experts." Although I trust the "experts" on many occasions, know that this is a "leap of faith." For example, you trust the experts that the dinosaurs lived 65 million years ago, but how do they know? Do they even know? You weren't there. You have to take it on faith. Religious people aren't the only ones who rely on faith. We all do, like it or not.

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    5. TH, mazel tov, finally something we agree on!

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    6. Happy, I love the Skull Crusher idea, but in today's medical/scientific world it simply Would Not be recommended by experts without the testing you mention, so your analogy fails. If my baby were to be the first one, the doctor would clearly be describing it as "experimental" and "not tested on humans." The first parents who submit their kids to this trial indeed ARE trusting the scientific experts that this is going to be a beneficial procedure. They don't have the intuition (to use your word) or the experience to otherwise back this up, as most people have never been anywhere near a clinical trial, let alone have been enrolled in one. So, um, your case proves my point?

      I will say this: there is much that is culturally based. In the US, it is a given that we take our kids to the pediatrician for well visits. In other countries (I hear Australia), that is not the case. Why waste everyone's time meeting with a doctor when you don't "have to"? We follow the American Pediatric Association (or whatever) recommendations because they are from the experts but also (and this fits your POV) because we are used to them.

      But I was referring to something that is MORE neutral. Take going hiking in bear country. We may have walked around in the woods a few miles from our urban/suburban centers, but I would more need for expert opinion if I were to go for a hike in the forest in Grizzly Country.

      Aaand the pandemic. This is something beyond our experience. We know of the Black Death and how it just steamrolled through the population. We know that people in operating rooms wear masks to minimize transmitting infections. We know little bits of this, but a global, long-lasting, nastily infectious life-changing virus is NEW. Therefore, yeah, experts and expert opinion is important.

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    7. Yosef I was posing a theoretical question, so my analogy works. But I think we can come up with very practical cases. Like a Covid vaccine. I will not voluntarily be among the first to take it, even if the experts recommend, given the immense pressure to produce it as quickly as possible. I will wait and see what happens, rather than immediately trusting the experts. And I suspect there are many others like myself.

      Another example where people who ordinarily "trust the experts" with all sorts of things, suddenly don't: Climate change. The Climate Change "Experts" mostly recommend that we disrupt our lives and economy in very very major way to stop a greater threat that they claim is looming. But since this prediction hasn't panned out in people's day to day experience, they are reluctant to take the type of major actions the "experts" recommend. Is this a contradiction? No, because as I said, when people "trust the experts", it's really their experience they are relying on.

      I agree about neutral, but most controversial things, where one side appeals to the experts, are anything but neutral. Like the pandemic, where experts say "let us shut down our society indefinitely". Not neutral. I only comply because I see what happened in New York in March/April and I'm scared, not because of my great trust in the experts.

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    8. Most Jews were unaffected by the Black Plague due to all the rules and regulations (restrictions) of purity. For example, Jews would wash their hands in the morning and before eating. Christians accused Jews of poising the wells and served as an excuse for anti-Semitism. 

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    9. I want to add that the "experts" on CNN were totally WRONG! They said it was going to be a landslide for Biden and Democrat governors. They tried to demoralize you not to vote as if it was a done deal from the start. Talk about voter suppression!

      I will never listen to the polls again. I told people not to listen to them. They were wrong last year, too. You can't say "we basically got it right, we were just totally wrong." No. You were wrong from the start, CNN. Trump won. Again!

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    10. I think a better way to say it is, we pick and choose which experts to trust and when, based on our intuition. We trust doctors, lawyers*, accountants, builders, engineers, car mechanics, electricians, butchers, bakers, the companies that made our food. We trust they know what they're doing because in our experience, society has functioned pretty much smoothly with these "experts" doing their thing.

      But there are some classes of experts or some situations we don't trust. Climatologists/people who correctly predict how severely the climate will affect people in 50 years are not a major part of the human experience. Therefore, for many people there is no reason to trust them at all, any more than they would trust the local Catholic bishop or Muslim imam to tell them about God. Covid- that's definitely a grey area. How much experience do us non-experts, have with global pandemics? Our trust in the experts would require us to take a leap of faith beyond our usual intuitions. What about grizzly country? Well, I will tell you that even if a zoologist informed me that based on his cursory but expert analysis, bears are unlikely to be found in newly-discovered-as-of-yet-uncharted Forest X, I would still be very hesitant to be the first one to hike there.

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    11. In fact, I think the only time a situation is truly neutral, such that people trust experts without relying on intuition, is when it has no practical effects, or is very easy. Do we trust astronomers and physicists to correctly tell us about the movements and and masses of stars billions of light years away? For most people, the answer is, sure, why not? This isn't in people's experience, but is truly neutral. Same thing with evolution, most of the evidence is not understandable to non-biologists, but they trust the experts who tell them there's Mountains of Evidence. Because, why not? But for the religious who have a Creation story, this is no longer neutral. It's no longer, "why not?". Then it's a question of, does my experience with biologists make me trust that they know what happened over a period of millions of years? Or, do I understand the evidence myself?

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    12. So far, Trump is far from winning. Boruch Hashem.
      Jason from Jersey

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    13. Jason, Trump can still win this. If he wins NV, AK, GA, NC, and PA, he'll remain the president of the United States.

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    14. @Happy "But for the religious who have a Creation story, this is no longer neutral. It's no longer, 'why not?'" When the passions are high is when it is most necessary to rely on expert consensus. ACJA

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    15. ACJA, sure, and the experts in this case are the Rabbis (who affirm the traditional Creation), not the biologists.

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    16. ACJA, I think I am correct about the Rabbis being the experts in this case, but either way, that wasn't my original point. My point was that which "experts" we trust highly depends on our experience and intuitions. Which is why I don't trust a Catholic bishop to tell me about God. I don't consider him an expert in God. And so too, I don't trust a biologist to tell me about what did or didn't happen in Creation. I don't consider him an expert in Creation. If he has evidence, and I understand it, and I agree with it, that's a different story. If he says, "if you would understand biology like me, you would agree", then it's back to trusting him. And I'd rather trust the Rabbis.

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  6. You write: "[I]f you believe that there is every reason to vote for your guy and not a single reason to vote for the other guy..."

    What if in the past one has always acknowledged that there are reasons to vote for "the other guy", but this time one candidate is so far beyond the pale that one just can't? I submit that there are cases when a rational person can conclude that one candidate is so badly flawed that a reflexive duty to include "on the other hand" turns into making excuses for the inexcusable.

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    1. Well, that is not confirmation bias. That is being convinced with evidence. Maybe. It especially is not such bias if one starts out with "giving the benefit of the doubt" or "party is more important" but then transitions to "Um, no." It's just the same the other way: "I hope he won't be the nominee bc he's awful" can transition to "He's still awful but there are some good things he did and some good people he hired."

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    2. I personally know liberal friends who switched Republican. That evidence points to the Donald. Trump 2020!

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    3. And we all know Republicans who in 2015-2016 swore NeverTrump and therefore voted Democrat. Watching a few people change their minds isn't proof of anything other than reaffirmation that some people have open minds.

      Evidence for Trump would be pointing out specific things that his administration has actually done (and yes, there ARE such things, such as behavior toward Israel) and weigh them against the things that they have bungled (and nebich, such things exist also, like fomenting an atmosphere of hatred allowing racism - including antisemitism - to burgeon up again).

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    4. @Yosef R, More Dems has switched Republican than the other way around due to those crazy riots. As for administration, he's fulfilled all his promises. He built the wall (even I thought that was a political ploy). Created space force (who knew), and has done more for the black community, with the possible exception of Lincoln. Has good relations with Bibi, I could go on and on. The one thing he hasn't done was fueled racism. And how can he support antisemitism when his own daughter is Jewish and married to a Jew? You guys need your heads examined, lol.

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    5. Turk Hill: they made a show about the space force that you might or might not find entertaining. As to quoting his ridiculous claim of doing more for the black community since Lincoln, you have just demonstrated your confirmation bias. For a more sobering perspective, just google it, or see this for example:
      https://www.vox.com/21524499/what-trump-has-done-for-black-people

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    6. Reb Gili, Thank you for sharing the link, but I still stick with what I wrote. I think Trump, with the possible exception of Lincoln, did more for the black community than any other president. We must remember that the Left is trying to win the black vote. Since they are guaranteed their vote, they don't do spat for the black community. Trump, on the other hand, needs to win them over, so he actually does something useful for them.

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  7. Okay. So how do you decide whether anything you believe is true when there are smart guys arguing on both sides?

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    1. Simple. You just go with your gut, and decide that anyone saying different is either not so smart after all, or on the particular issue he's uninformed or misinformed.

      Another great illustration of why "confirmation bias" is meaningless.

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    2. DF, confirmation bias does exist. Ask anyone who voted democrat.

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    3. Turk Hill, I agree it does to a certain extent, my point is only that in essence it holds that everyone thinks they're right, and we've known that since the dawn of man. And unlike this Tom Cruise example, where it was a fact easy to disprove, most cases depend upon interpretation, so there's no way to every know who's right.

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  8. Cognitive biases are a fascinating subject, not least because while you can learn about them, rarely can you truly realise that you are being adversely impacted by them and never can you be sure that you are not.

    I heard an interesting podcast on the topic a while ago, where Daniel Kahneman sets out why he is not optimistic that these biases will ever be adequately corrected for.

    https://samharris.org/podcasts/150-map-misunderstanding/

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  9. there's a ton of literature on how to deal with cognitive bias (e.g. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/09/cognitive-bias/565775/
    https://hbr.org/2015/05/outsmart-your-own-biases) The bottom line imho:
    1.take a deep breath, especially before important decisions, and try to engage system 2
    2. have someone u can trust that u can talk to in order to make sure your not operating in a blind spot area
    kt

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  10. Interesting Far Side cartoon. Somebody thought it would be smart to make these white professors black, but forgot about it half way through, leaving the man on the left like he's still "transitioning." That's liberalism for you.

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    1. DF, LOL. Left Identity politics!

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    2. Good joke, but where is the Black professor still white?

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    3. Look at the face and hand of the prof saying "it only confirmed what we already knew."

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    4. The prof saying "It only confirmed..." is a white guy with a dark beard, no?

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    5. Maoz, a beard would extend all the way up past the ear like that. And it wouldn't be the exact same color as the black guy.

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    6. Dude. The professor on the left of the picture is Black. The professor on the right of the picture is white. His skin is pink, his beard is brown. The beard goes up and joins his sideburns and then joins his male-pattern-baldness crown line. What on earth are you talking about?? And the beard is NOT the same color as the Black guy - it is more reddish. The whole frame seems "overcolorised" if that is a word (like the pink skin is rather intense) so that maybe makes things a little off, but each person is colored properly.

      (I know it's a couple of days' delay, and maybe you are just trolling, but... DUDE)

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  11. This is theoretically true, but there is such a thing as a legitimately evil or terrible leader, who it is objectively immoral to follow. I believe the malevolently narcissistic, pathologically lying, racist, white supremacist, wholly corrupt sociopath who is currently causing mass death due to his stupidity and incompetence easily fits that bill.

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    1. Everything you wrote about Trump was wrong. A perfect example of confirmation bias, right here! Actually, Trump condemned white supremacy. On the other hand, Biden never condemned Antifa and lied countless times. Trump showed the "tape" to prove it. Biden said many racist comments. And Trump is responsible for saving millions of American lives when he banned travel from China. Lastly, China, not Trump, is responsible for all the deaths of coronavirus. Trump does not fit that bill. 

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    2. Furthermore, no reasonable person could possibly blame Trump for all the 200 thousand+ deaths, as if zero people would have died had someone else been in charge. Remember that this is a GLOBAL pandemic, worldwide, and is not immune to the US. Many people in Russia are suffering from covid, for example. Largely populated countries got hot hard no matter the leader. You can't pull a number out of thin air and claim Trump killed "x" amount of people when he didn't. And for the media to exploit the deaths of real people in a partisan way is immoral. Your argument is mute.

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    3. Oh, and one more thing. Biden, as well as all the rest of the democratic Left, is complacent to the slaughter of more than 60 million children. Dems complain about cages that Obama built, and scream BLM, but allow the slaughter to go on. Abortion is not a natural plague. It's a choice to murder, and be responsible for it. Roland Reagan put it best, "If there is a question as to whether there is life or death, the doubt should be resolved in favor of life".

      Or, as G-d made clear in Deuteronomy 30:19: “I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse — therefore choose life!”

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    4. Turk Hill, pay more attention
      https://www.foxnews.com/politics/biden-condemns-antifa-violent-protests

      Trump is a spoiled rich kid grown old who has never been held accountable for anything in his life. His friends and even family only matter to him as long as they can be of some use. Republicans like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, among others, said some very true things about him last election cycle prior to him becoming their boss. The only thing the guy's actually good at is promoting himself. I can't believe people are still buying it.

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    5. @MV "I can't believe people are still buying it."

      You’re shocked?? This is why Trump will win! In fact, Trump will win in a LANDSLIDE! Get used to it! 4 more years! It will be great! Trump 2020!

      (Oh, right, he already won!)

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    6. As of 12:30pm November 4th your above statement looks to be as true as the rest of what you wrote. We'll see.

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    7. True, Biden seems to be winning now, but we shall see.

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  12. I think there is some misconceptions about confirmation bais. Confirmation is the tendency to when presented with information in print or voice we "cherry pick" the information which confirms what we already embrace. This reinforces our beliefs. It feels good to be validated. To examine information to the contrary takes energy in thought and can be uncomfortable for us to reconcile with our priors.
    Confirmation bias, per se, does not make us ardent fans of a particular candidate necessarily to the extent of demonizing the other candidates or issues.
    Three other cognitive biases contribute to solid one sidedness.
    One is tribalism. I always find it odd for the modern orthodox to not get along with the Heridim. We have more in common then differences as compared to the non observant. Yet it is easy to dislike the “others” The second is na├»ve realism. This pertains to what we have heard, seen or experienced. These phenomena are very very real to us. Those who do not see what we have or heard what we did are crazy, difficient, or biased. The third is cultural and regional values. People often are raised with community norms and even when we leave home those norms are commonly part of us – part of our identity and not easy to change.

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  13. RNS
    Do you think you suffer from confirmation bias when it comes to Charedim? After all you were ones Charedi and you appear to have lots of criticism on them with nothing positive to say.When it comes to MO you never seem to criticise even when it comes to very high dropout statistics in the MO community.(As you explained in a post "It's worth it")

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  14. The Jewish vote went up 30.5% for Trump.

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